Driverless Companies

Even in a digital world, we need great (human) leaders.

By Rob Andringa of RBC Wealth Management
Tue, 2016-11-29 20:19

Earlier this fall, federal auto safety regulators gave driverless cars the unofficial green light, betting the nation’s highways will be safer with cars driven by machines instead of people.

It’s the latest game-changing development in a decades-long push for automation and digitization. And that push will only accelerate.

A 2014 study from Pew Research Center on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics found that most technology and internet experts expect AI and robotics will be integrated into nearly every aspect of most people’s daily lives.

Even in the wealth management industry, financial advice is going digital with new players offering what we in the industry have dubbed “robo-advice.” It’s not just because everything digital is hot, but because many clients are demanding it. Just this year, my own firm, RBC Wealth Management, launched a pilot in the U.S. combining digitized advice with our traditional, face-to-face, personalized model.

But one area that can’t be automated is leadership.

Great leaders are confident, energetic and passionate about what they do. They operate with the highest integrity possible and know how to motivate their teams simply by serving as an example.

Each of these are traits that generally cannot be taught. They can’t be programmed either.

So much of what has been automated or digitized today is really what I’d call black or white. Driverless cars can be programmed to follow the long established rules of the road, for example. If a light is red, the car needs to stop. When the light turns green and there is nothing in the way, the car can go.

Perhaps automation on those black-and-white decisions is best. But we need leaders to make sense of the grey.

Leaders don’t need a roadmap. They chart a new course where previously there was none. Think about George Washington, who with the help of our other founding fathers, created a new model of democracy that continues to thrive today. Or Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player who charted a new path that so many others have since followed. Or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose innovative policies helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression and laid the foundation for decades of subsequent prosperity.

There is no formula for what these leaders did and I doubt anyone could replicate their contributions, even if they tried.

Another point of distinction: leaders know when to go full throttle, but they also know when to take the foot off the gas. Granted, a leader will often know when a strategy isn’t working and it’s time to regroup because data told them so. But more often than not, they know it’s time for Plan B because they’ve listened to some tough feedback, made inferences based on what colleagues and customers have said or left unsaid or simply followed their gut instinct.

I doubt there is an algorithm for that.

Leaders also have the unique ability to take the very different members of their organization — members that often don’t see eye to eye — and get them all moving in the same direction. Take, for example, any leader at a brokerage firm, whether it’s at the branch level, the complex level where I sit, or at the full-company level. Anyone in such a position must find a way to get several hundred to a few thousand entrepreneurs (financial advisors) to tend to their individual businesses while thinking collectively about the greater good, which in the case of a finance advice firm, the greater good is always that of our clients.

To do so successfully, great leaders know they can’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach. They must instead understand what makes each person on their team tick and then tailor their style to fit the needs of those individuals.

I don’t know of a company, sports team or organization that has succeeded without a great leader at the helm. And in an increasingly complex world, we are in desperate need of great leadership. While technology can solve a lot of the complexities that plague the business world and can simplify so many parts of our daily lives, it simply cannot produce great leaders.


Rob Andringa is Complex Director of RBC Wealth Management’s 180-person St. Paul complex. He joined RBC Wealth Management in 2000 and became branch director of the firm’s Madison, Wis., office, a role he held until late 2015 when he was promoted to St. Paul Complex Director.